Stressed Out? 10 Signs You Have High Cortisol and WHY

Signs of high cortisol levels can sneak up on you. One day, you're handling life just fine. You’re able to take new responsibilities at work with nothing but a sigh. Your husband gets a pay cut, so you simply stop buying fresh flowers, eating out for lunch, and you workout at home instead of the gym. Your best friend moves away, but you still Facetime every Thursday evening with a glass of wine to catch up.


Before you know it, though, you’ve gained weight around your belly, you find yourself wide awake every night despite being exhausted, and an itchy rash has appeared on your right shin. It’s official. Your body is on stress overload. Your cortisol levels are just too high.


So, what ARE the symptoms of high cortisol levels?


  1. Tired but Wired

  2. Belly Fat

  3. Digestive Issues

  4. Brain Fog

  5. Changes in Libido

  6. Anxiety

  7. Fertility Issues

  8. Frequent Illness

  9. Acne or Other Skin Issues

  10. An Increase in Blood Sugar


Let's take a closer look at each of these 10 signs that you have high cortisol levels:


1. Tired but Wired


You’re exhausted all day, but when it comes time to sleep at night, your brain is absolutely WIRED. You can’t fall asleep, you wake up in the middle of the night for hours at a time, and if your eyes peep open anytime after 5am… all hope is lost for getting back to sleep.



2. Belly Fat


Weight gain specifically surrounding your abdomen is a huge sign that your cortisol levels are high.



3. Digestive Issues


Bloating, gas, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), acid reflux… you name it. If you’re having more issues than is normal for you, it could be cortisol.



4. Brain Fog


Forgetting appointments more than usual? Can’t seem to think of that word you want to say? It may not be aging, it could be your cortisol levels!



5. Changes in Libido


Be honest, now. Would your partner agree? Are you in the mood less?



6. Anxiety


If you’re experiencing more anxiety in response to issues and tasks that you used to be able to handle easily, it could be cortisol to blame.



7. Fertility Issues


Irregular or lost periods? Difficulty getting pregnant? These are signs that your body is just under too much stress.



8. Frequent Illness


Can’t seem to avoid that office bug? Or always seem to catch whatever is going around your kid’s school? High cortisol could be the problem.



9. Acne or Other Skin Issues


Breaking out like you’re a teenager again? Where did that eczema come from?? You’ve never had it before! Yep, cortisol.



10. An Increase in Blood Sugar


Your doctor may have detected this change, or you may have a significant increase in sugar cravings and hunger in general. Either way, it could be cortisol.




Do any of these sound familiar? You’re not alone! According to Occupational Health and Safety News, 75-90% of doctor’s visits are connected to stress-related illnesses and complaints[1]. Stress is a HUGE DEAL when it comes to our health!



Why are you experiencing these symptoms of high cortisol?


Throughout the day, when your body senses any stress or perceived threat, cortisol is released[4]. That’s why cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone”. Cortisol is released from the adrenal gland and it enters the bloodstream[3].


Current science estimates that you have around 30 trillion cells in your body. Nearly all of them have cortisol receptors[3]. As the cortisol gets pumped all around your body through the bloodstream, these receptors detect the cortisol and respond. They get ready to protect your body for a time of extreme crisis.


Now, when you think of stress, you may think of meetings at work, making sure your kids get along, remembering to send your mother in law a birthday card, or getting those pesky taxes done on time.


When your body thinks of stress, it thinks “I’M UNDER ATTACK! THERE’S A TIGER THAT WANTS TO EAT ME! RUN!!” It’s meant to be short term.


Your blood sugar levels spike, your immune system is put on hold, and anything that is not needed for immediate survival is stalled or stopped.


Over time, if your body never gets a break from feeling like it’s under attack, cortisol builds in the bloodstream. Your body never gets a chance to set back to normal, and health problems arise.





What happens if there is too much cortisol in the body?


Ever wonder why you can’t sleep when you’re stressed? Or what stress has to do with your acne? Let’s take a look at those same 10 symptoms of high cortisol and discover the reasons why you are experiencing them.


1. Tired but Wired


When your body thinks it’s under attack, it wants you to be on HIGH ALERT! It doesn’t

want you to fall asleep if you’re in danger of getting eaten by a tiger as you doze.


Also, cortisol is a hormone in your body that is naturally released in the morning[9]. It gets you started and going for the day. Normally, levels trail off throughout the day while melatonin kicks in to get you ready for a good night’s rest.


If you’re always on high alert, your body is going to have a hard time producing that melatonin to get you feeling sleepy.



2. Belly Fat


When your body senses stress, blood sugar levels spike in order to give you energy to

run away from that tiger[10]!


Over time, though, high blood sugar leads to a decreased sensitivity to insulin. Your body has difficulty using that blood sugar for the energy that it needs. Between your body not using the blood sugar it already has, and cortisol continuing to tell your body it needs more sugar… your blood sugar levels are sure to skyrocket with prolonged stress.


Over time, increased blood sugar levels leads to the redistribution of fat. It adds to visceral fat aka fat surrounding the organs aka belly fat. Visceral fat affects how hormones function, which may be why it’s triggered by cortisol.



3. Digestive Issues


When in survival mode, your body is not worried about digesting food or absorbing nutrients[3]. It assumes that life will calm down in an hour, and it can worry about digesting later. Bloating, gas, IBS, and acid reflux are all common symptoms of high cortisol levels.


Prolonged stress can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, even if you’re eating the

right foods and taking your supplements! If your body can’t absorb the nutrients, they’re just going to end up in the toilet.


Studies also show that during times of high stress, healthy bacteria in our gut is significantly decreased[5]. This can lead to difficulty digesting food, as well as contribute to your mood and how your immune system is functioning.



4. Brain Fog


Due to your decreased sensitivity to insulin (discussed above), your body can’t use

blood sugar to give your brain energy to function properly. If your brain doesn’t have proper energy, it’s no wonder you can’t ever find your keys!


Also, when your body is in a stressful situation, it creates short term memories of emotional events[6]. It wants to learn how to avoid running into that tiger again tomorrow!


Over time, creating memories of these “traumatic” emotional events damages cells in the hippocampus[8]. This decreases your ability to learn new information in the future. Can’t seem to grasp that new software program at work? Don’t worry, you’re not turning into a technology-illiterate grandmother yet… it’s probably your cortisol.



5. Changes in Libido


If your body truly thinks it’s in danger, now is NOT the time for you to be in the mood! It is definitely not the right time to bring a child into this world! Nope, your body will hold off until it feels safe again[3]… even if that’s a year from now. Sorry, hubby...



6. Anxiety


Being in a constant state of high alert teaches your body to be more sensitive to situations that would otherwise not be stressful to you in a normal state[7]. Your body has learned that it’s always in danger. You may find yourself highly reactive to seemingly small stressors.


That water that your toddler spilled all over the kitchen?? HUGE DEAL. Now, you have

to clean it up, get your kid some more water, and dinner won’t be ready on time. You don’t think you can handle one more thing...


In a normal state? Oops, no big deal. It’s just water. Here, Johnny, why don’t you help me clean it up?



7. Fertility Issues


When cortisol is elevated, your body stops anything in your body that is not needed for immediate survival. In the moment of being chased by a tiger, your body knows that now is NOT the right time to reproduce!


Over time, these changes in your hormones can lead to missed periods, and difficulty conceiving[3].



8. Frequent Illness


Your body is less concerned with fighting off that cold than it is with running from that tiger. It assumes it will be able to fight off the germs once the tiger is no longer a threat[9].


If your immune system is constantly depressed, your body is less able to protect itself

from whatever your kids are bringing home from school, or that cold that’s been circulating around the office.



9. Acne or Other Skin Issues


The skin is especially sensitive to psychological stress. Issues such as eczema, psoriasis, acne, pruritus (itchy skin), and even hives can result from an increase in stress[2].


Also, wounds heal more slowly with elevated cortisol. It’s part of your immune system

slow down. So, what acne you DO have will remain front and center on your forehead for longer.



10. An Increase in Blood Sugar


You need to have energy to run away from that saber-toothed tiger! Your body calls for more glucose (blood sugar). Unfortunately, if your blood sugar levels remain high for too long, you start to develop a decreased sensitivity to insulin.


If your body isn’t responding to insulin, it’s not able to use up that glucose for energy. It isn’t getting energy. It calls for even more glucose. You get hungry. You crave sugar! It still isn’t getting energy. It starts to break down muscle for that energy instead.


All that extra sugar you’re consuming? Yep, it turns to fat.




If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you may be wondering… What now??


Check out this blog post to discover10 science-backed ways to combat high cortisol that you can start implementing TODAY!


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/

  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022202X15330311

  3. https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/cortisol

  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18023961/

  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20130703071625/http://www.medical-library.net/content/view/1401/41

  7. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1559140/1/Peters_Uncertainty_stress_causes_diseases.pdf

  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680862/

  9. https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/

  10. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol#1

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